Memoir with a Message: An American Radical

Originally posted on

I read a lot of nonfiction, and more than a few memoirs. But my pleasure-reading tends towards showbiz tell-alls (next up: Tina Fey and Betty White) and pop-history (think Sarah Vowell). So when I was asked to review Susan Rosenberg’s An American Radical: Political Prisoner in My Own Country, I knew I’d be wandering out of my comfort zone.

Jewschool readers may know Rosenberg from her work as director of communications at American Jewish World Service. Those with longer memories may recall the 1990 documentary Through the Wire, which detailed a fight that Rosenberg and her fellow prisoners at the Female High Security prison in Lexington, Kentucky fought and won against the government protesting the cruel and unusual treatment they received. Rosenberg’s book connects the dots, detailing her transformation from radical activist on the FBI’s most-wanted list to non-profit Jewish professional. 

In some ways, this book is hard to read. First, we are asked to sympathize with Rosenberg, a leftist radical advocating violent resistance to the US Government. She came of age in the 1970, when, she tells us, so much of the world was engaged in violent upheaval, it felt like the only way to stop the government’s racist, colonialist, misogynistic and anti-gay policies was through violence. She got involved with the Black Liberation Army and landed on the most-wanted list by being implicated in the Brink’s Robbery of 1981. While I can understand the enormity of the abuses she and her compatriots struggled against, it was hard for me to feel much sympathy for someone advocating for violent means to a political end.

But that changed the moment of Rosenberg’s capture, when she received a 58-year sentence for stockpiling weapons — the longest sentence ever given for a possession offence. Labeled a terrorist in the courts, Rosenberg was plunged into a prison nightmare so hellish, it challenges everything we want to believe about our land of the free, home of the brave. This too, makes the book hard to read, because the ugly underbelly of our justice system and the struggles of the women inside it are overwhelming.

At times, particularly in the first half of the book, I found myself wondering what Rosenberg was leaving out. Surely she must have provoked her captors to elicit some of the cruelty she encountered. But there is no justification for the torture she documents — and make no mistake, it is torture. Even more horrifying is Rosenberg’s admission that her status as a political prisoner, and a member of the white middle class, brought privileges even within the prison system that she credits with her survival.

As the book progresses, and Rosenberg herself matures and begins to not only examine the system but also her own beliefs, it becomes easier to root for her. Woven throughout her experience is a growing connection to her Jewish heritage. Although not religious, she finds strength in connection to her people and her heritage, and ultimately finds allies including a Chabad rabbi who makes prison rounds and Rabbi Matalon of B’nai Jeshurun in New York City. She writes of sharing a Passover seder in prison, one of her first moments of contact with the “general population” after months of segregation, and of teaching about the Holocaust in prison education classes to young women of color who had never encountered the subject. Even as she chafes at the rise of a more fundamentalist streak in prisoners of other faiths, Rosenberg manages to find grounding in a secular attachment to Judaism.

This book isn’t for everyone. I can’t imagine a reader who isn’t at least somewhat predisposed to liberal politics having any sympathy Rosenberg, especially because such readers are unlikely to make it far enough into the book to confront the abuses of the prison system. Those who are triggered by depictions of abuse and misogyny are also likely to have a difficult time with the book.

But it’s worth pushing through the discomfort, for there is real wisdom in these pages. And the network of individuals who coalesce around Rosenberg, and her own eventual emergence into nonviolent social activism and human rights work add a glimmer of hope to the otherwise bleak picture presented.

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